This is the final blog in a series SEUK has been working on with Westminster University through which we explore ways in which social enterprises empower women, and collectively, advance gender equality.
For this fourth blog, I spoke to Nickala Torkington, co-founder of Flourish Together CIC . The social enterprise, established 8 years ago, provides support, specialist research and consultancy to the social enterprise sector and wider public sector organisations in order to reinvest its surplus resources in investment, intensive support and learning opportunities to enable women change-makers to flourish. It does this in several ways, including through providing peer learning, mentoring, coaching and seed investment. Flourish Together CIC supports women from a diverse backgrounds, both in terms of age (30 to 65 even up to 70s) and ethnicity (40% of the women are from ethnically diverse communities).
For Nickala, the word ‘empowerment’ entails giving people the power to lead, to take control of their destiny and lead change. Women face greater challenges in doing all these, not least because of the unequal gender structures we live in. Nickala drew attention to the fact that we have a “boys club” culture where men influence policy-making, occupy leadership roles, and where services/structures are predominantly designed, managed and delivered through a male thinking lens. It was therefore critical to make sure that wherever possible, women were supported, and that they had the skills to run, lead and manage their own show.
Unleashing women’s economic independence is key to Nickala. She explained “Women are a force for social change. Ultimately, if you can increase the economic independence of women, they have financial means and freedom to lead change. So we invest cash in women, alongside support and we crowdsource resources in innovative ways to create opportunities which otherwise wouldn’t exist. Economic independence has a big bearing on how quickly women can get ahead and implement their ideas for change. So we try to support women changemakers to access cash and resources to progress what it is they’re doing for their personal professional or organisational development. We put our money where our mouth is, so we invest as much of our own turnover back into the social economy and back into supporting women directly who can then grow and evolve what they’re doing. So there’s this kind of, you know, virtuous circle that evolves.”
Nickala felt that women can sometimes be their own worst enemy, hindering the good work which they are doing. Women struggle with imposter syndrome, more than men do! They typically also care for children, elderly relatives or other family members, and need to find creative ways to get around that. Otherwise they remain trapped in by their care responsibilities and financial constraints, not making the progress they need. Importantly, women and women led organisations can act in a bit of a bubble, leaving men out of the discussion. But men are a valuable resource and need to be involved more in gender equality and empowerment. In using their leverage (resources, contacts, networks), men can help progress toward gender equality.
Nickala gave some examples. Emmeline Pankhurst, who organized the UK suffragette movement and helped women win the right to vote, had a husband who was a massive ally. Richard Pankhurst set up a National Society for Women’s Suffrage. He also drafted the bill which became the Married Women’s Property Act 1882, which gave married women the ability to own and control property in their own right. Octavia Hill, pioneer of social housing, put her dreams (to establish improved housing for “my friends among the poor”) into practice with the financial help of her friend, John Ruskin. So, in every generation there have been great and wonderful men who have ensured that women are supported. There are many male-led social enterprises that we’ve spoken with who are passionate about gender equality and who provide many accounts of what they have done for women beneficiaries.
Bottom line- If we want to we want to make progress toward gender equality, then let us utilise men and their resources, talents and skills.
As we emerge from lockdown, Nickala offered her reflections on how Covid-19 has posed enormous gender equality challenges. She explained how the pandemic is unravelling a lot of progress which women have made. The cost of living has been compounded by Covid. Many women have also been affected by children not being able to go to school during the pandemic. They have had to navigate the challenges of work with those in the household. A lot of women will feel that they’ve taken a step backwards in the last year. Yet there has been limited discussion of the challenges and opportunities women contend with during Covid and potential sustainable solutions. Many women have just kept going because that’s what they have had to do. They have just soldiered on. They have continued to do fantastic things even within the constraints of the pandemic, supporting other women, making changes for a better future. Inspiringly Flourish Together have intensively supported over 120 women led ventures through Covid, 80 of which have been new enterprise start-ups in spite of the pandemic.
There is a risk that women and women led organisations will be left exhausted and frustrated by Covid, without focusing on self-care. Nickala’s message was that it was important for women to look after their mental well-being and that of their team. Latterly, Flourish Together CIC is spreading a message and promoting a culture in which health and well-being are prioritised. We not only need effective women change makers, we need to keep supporting these women as they utilise their talents and resources to make a positive difference to the communities around them.